Monday, August 15, 2011

No Thanks

A problem and a question from a reader:

This month we organized an international research conference at our University, with the organization committee consisting of three male professors, a female professor and me. The composition of the committee has been very clear on all conference-related documents. Also, the conference ended by the whole committee thanking everyone for making the event successful in front of the whole audience.

Five of the invited lecturers have written and thanked us for organizing the conference. What disturbs me is that the last two (male) professors only thanked the male professors for organizing the meeting, while cc:ing me and the female professor + the other lecturers on these e-mails.

I feel annoyed for both myself and the female professor, as we both put in lots of work in the organization, but I do not know if I should comment (and if so, how) on these acknowledgments.


So, FSP readers, what would you do?:

(a) Nothing. Just let it go. There is no good, productive way to tell these men that they should have thanked all organizers equally. They will not change their behavior, and they might think less of anyone who tells them (or implies) that their selective thanking was sexist.

(b) Someone should politely inform these two professors that confining their primary thanks to the male organizers caused offense to the female organizers. That someone should be: (1) The male organizers; (2) The female organizers; (3) All the organizers together as a group; or (4) Someone else.

(c) Someone should ignite the verbal flame throwers and forcefully and not-necessarily-politely tell these two professors that they are sexist and that they should apologize to the women.

(d) Other.

I don't know the dynamics of this group, but my preference would be to start with one of the (b) options, and see what kind of reaction, if any, this gets from the two professors in question. I think they should be called out on their actions somehow, and in such a way that would increase the chances that they would thereafter not repeat them.

It is possible that they are reasonable individuals. Writing the thank-you note in the first place shows a degree of politeness, even if there was a problem associated with their selective thanking.

Your opinions and advice?


Anonymous said...

I would definitely suggest complaining about your work and efforts not being acknowledged appropriately. I definitely would complain, and have in the past.

Without more knowledge of this particular situation (reoccurring issue, or a once-off issue in a generally positive environment), I am unsure whether you need to identify the gender issues.

Anonymous said...

Not trying to be apologetic but maybe the male organizers were the major organizers? In all conferences, there are organizers that are more active/visible and the ones that are less active/visible. Some of the organizing committee members practically do nothing. Could that be the reason why the lecturers perceived the role of male organizers differently and gave them more credit?

Anonymous said...

b 1. The male organizers should do a "reply all" to everyone on the thank you note, pointing out the full list of organizers.

Anonymous said...

get over it, fsp. while the rest of the world is burning in economic meltdown, fsp is being bemused by her own slight anger over gender bias. maybe these two invited male speakers are buddies with male organizers, and they do not feel the need to be politically correct in front of two masculinized female organizers(you have to be so to get to this point, don't you). Maybe they know that you know that you can't pull as much weight as your male counterparts in the whole messy process. The point is that fsp could probably make a bigger splash, instead of feeling slighted at every little turn (sorry fsp, the world is not perfect, scienceworld included) if she could just act like any of her male colleagues as highly achieved as her). you must have some other gender neutral causes to promote, haven't you?

Kay said...

Definitely #2.

I've often had someone send me a thank you note and leave out one of my more junior colleagues. I always respond as if the omission was unintentional: I email them back something along the lines of "I really appreciate the note, but you should know that X played a major role and deserves more credit than I do" blah, blah, blah. And I always cc X. This forces the original note write to respond with a thank you to X as well, but does it in such a way that I am not calling them out, just letting them know more about what happened behind the scenes. I don't think I offend the person, their opinion of X increases, and the junior colleague is always appreciative.

When I was more junior, I was surrounded by wonderful colleagues and often had more senior (always male) colleagues do the same for me. I hope by modeling the behavior to my more junior colleagues, they will do the same in the future. A win-win for everyone.

What would be difficult is if the colleagues in the situation who received the thanks didn't respond in this way on their own. Your approach would have to depend on your relationship with them... would they be open to a conversation along the lines of "It was unfortunate that didn't recognize all of our contributions to the conference. Do you think you could respond in a way that makes it clear it was team effort?"

If not and I was the female professor, I might make a response that came off as protecting the instructors. Since she was copied on the thank you note, she could write a similar response as to what I had above, but putting the instructors forward (as well as herself by default): "Thank you for the kind note. This conference was quite a lot of work and was a team effort that included several of us. I'd like to particularly point out , since her job doesn't usually entail conference organization and she did a fabulous job..." That kind of a response clearly indicates the female prof was an organizer, but is also a responsible colleague who protects those with a lesser status than her own... a sign of status and maturity in itself.

Anonymous said...

I presume you know about this as one of your colleagues, the one who actually received the letter/email, showed you the correspondence.

Did they comment on the selective thanks? If not, did the reader mention it to the recipient at the time?

The way I would ideally approach this is for the recipient to send a quick email back to the all teh invited speakers saying something like "Thanks for your contribution. All of the speakers, along with the efforts put in by all my co-committee members A, B, C and D, made this a really good meeting...".

If the recipient of the message did not acknowldge this omission, or will not reply as suggested above, then I would let it drop and just get on with life....oh and harbour a grudge for the next X years against said people!

Anonymous said...

The male organizers should write back to them, and say something along the lines of "You're welcome, but btw a special thanks to our colleagues X and Y, who did a lot of the work."

Anonymous said...

In cases like this I tend to prefer a "bank shot", some way to indirectly point out that someone has missed the boat without coming at them directly. For example, one of the two under-thanked parties could reply to all graciously accepting the thanks (and mentioning specifics of what they contributed) as if the note had been addressed to them. The cognitive dissonance that this response is likely to elicit can be an effective teaching tool.

Anonymous said...

My choice: Option B (3). And if the reply is anything short of a proper apology, follow up with C.

Anonymous said...


In fact I've seen a senior male colleague and mentor of mine quite gracefully take on this task in similar circumstances.

Anonymous said...

B1 or B3. Failing that, A.

Ideally, B1, with one of the male professors replying all and saying very graciously that the committee consisted of 5 members (including the two female PROFESSORS) and equal thanks must go to all of them. Care should be taken so that it doesn't sound like you are administrative assistants (though they do often put in a lot of work into these events, being an administrative assistant means something different). Then thank all the speakers for a wonderful conference.

Anonymous said...

Wow...this post really opens my eyes because I just sent a thank you note to a conference organiser last week for inviting me to speak. As luck would have it, it turns out there was a female organiser involved. Drat!

Fortunately, there was one more male organiser who I didn't thank either, basically because the only thank you note I sent went to the organiser who is an old friend. That might just save me from being sent to the "death camp of tolerance"

Eilat said...

Not the same situation, exactly, but I was the only female (postdoc) on a team of people working on a project. I was cc'd on an email from one of the organizers whose greeting started with "Gentlemen, ..."'

So, I replied to the email:

"Dear Person, Im just writing to let you know that there is at least one "lady" on the team ;-) Cheers, Me"

I kept the tone light, but to the point. And I got an apology. So, I guess that means choice B. and probably from the whole group, to show solidarity.

Anonymous said...

I ilke this suggested solution:

"I've often had someone send me a thank you note and leave out one of my more junior colleagues. I always respond as if the omission was unintentional: I email them back something along the lines of "I really appreciate the note, but you should know that X played a major role and deserves more credit than I do" blah, blah, blah. And I always cc X. This forces the original note write to respond with a thank you to X as well, but does it in such a way that I am not calling them out, just letting them know more about what happened behind the scenes. I don't think I offend the person, their opinion of X increases, and the junior colleague is always appreciative."

Mark P

Anonymous said...

It is unprofessional to thank select organizers whilst ccing the remaining organizers. The Thanker needs to be told this (nicely), probably by one of the professors who was thanked.

While I agree that the Thanker's behavior most likely reflects sexism, I find it most effective to argue based on non-professionalism.


Anonymous said...

I would have assumed it was a professor vs. lecturer respect issue if the female professor hadn't also been relegated to the cc so that only the male professors were the primary recipients of the thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am going to start paying better attention to my To: and Cc: fields. I had no idea people were so sensitive (I am not saying not rightly so and I like Kay's suggestion - but that's in the case of an omission) to their use.

It's a miracle that you even get cc'd on an e-mail these days where you even actually have anything to do with the contents instead of ending up in some massive "covering my ass by including everybody list".
I guess what I am trying to say is the following: Given that everybody involved was on the addressee list, couldn't it just have been that the writer meant well? If it had been a paper letter sent in an envelope no one would be able to tell if they got the original print out or a copy...

Anonymous said...

I am a female assoc. prof. and I chose option A. In my six years in academia I learned that one should chose their battles, and this is nothing compared with more serious situations that your reader will go through. Maybe these speakers knew the male professors; maybe they didn't but felt more comfortable socializing with them during the meeting. Maybe they are just jerks. In any case, how does it help your reader to let them know they are idiots?

And you...FSP...if you didn't waste so much time with these stupid posts the world would not be burning in economic meltdown. Please apply some lipstick and do something useful with your time.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I'm confused. Are we to assume that the letter writer is female? He/She says, "...of three male professors, a female professor and me." I never saw written (or even implied, really) that the letter write was female. If he/she is male, then the reasons for the slight may be more complex (although he/she could also have been 'slighted' as a ethnic minority, a relatively junior prof, etc). I assume you know more about the identity of this writer than I...??

Anonymous said...

Maybe the three males interacted more closely with said person than the two females? I usually feel more thankful towards people that helped me more getting to a conference. Perhaps it's just a mere coincidence?

Also, Anon 2:13. You're a moron.

Female Science Professor said...

The writer has a female name; that's all I know.

Anonymous said...

".. do something useful with your time."

unlike writing that rude comment and reading something one thinks is stupid? Commenter, know thyself.

Anonymous said...

It's weird and disturbing how worked up some people (I refer here to the commenters) get about a simple issue of etiquette. The thankers should thank all the organizers equally, without regard to academic position or gender or who is friends with whom. Why the hostile response from some commenters just because gender may be an issue here? Are they systematically writing to all bloggers in the universe who aren't focusing on economic and other crises, or do they only emerge from their lairs to write rude comments to women?

Anonymous said...

Since no one has voted for (c), I'll do it just to be ornery -- the flame throwers have already fired their first shots in these comments. Since the emails were sent to everyone in the entire conference, hopefully one of those participants will launch a good flame. That would really call some great attention to the issue, and even if some people are antagonized, it will be very satisfying to see the flame and it will also probably prevent anyone in the group from doing something ilke that again. So if anyone feels like throwing a good flame out to the entire group, fire away! As others have pointed out, the world's going to pot anyway, so who cares about niceties!

Anonymous said...

I would just thank them for the appreciation.
Write back, as you were cc'ed, sayng something like "thanks! it was great to have the opportunity to put together such an awesome conference with awesome speakers like yourself, and I'm glad you guys appreciated"
Polite, and still getting the msg across (that you were in charge too)

John Vidale said...

Not nearly enough information presented to draw a conclusion, and in most possible situations it is not a case worth protracting with an attempted intervention.

If it were me, I'd be thanking specific people and not the committee as a whole. I generally know who did what, and perhaps who did what well, and I don't send pro forma thank you notes to everybody, although maybe I should. I also generally do not thank five people at once, which degrades the idea any one did particularly well or much.

If I thanked the three who first came to mind as having done the most, and got back a didactic note hinting my thanks were viewed as slighting a gender, an ethnicity, a sub-specialty, researchers vs faculty, young vs more senior people, thin vs wide people, or whatever, my impression might be irritation.

Anonymous said...

I was recently in a situation like this. I am a graduate student in the sciences and organized a student-organized national symposium this year at a major university in the US. We were a team of several male and female (I am male) grad students involved in this team. Every one had their fair share of the work. But one person always acted as if they were the boss of the group. They also constantly took things in their own hands without much consultation with others on the team, and so outsiders only saw this person as major organizer. So all the thank you notes and such went to this person. The rest of us, or at least me, didn't get anything. To make matters worse, this person gave all of us a thank you card at the end of the symposium, for putting in all the hard work we did. It shocked me that one of us was giving thank you notes to the rest of us. The nerve some people got. I decided to not say anything to this person as I will never have to deal with them ever again.

EliRabett said...

Like the bank shot!

Linda Miller said...

One of the key aspects of leadership to show in this situation is to first objectively consider the facts- both your own and do some 'research' on the other party's views and modus operandi. Different action is called for if it's a genuine misunderstanding (pleasant, low key but direct communication) vs insensitivity (Kay's approach is magic!). For some secret strategies to make leading others easier, quicker and more effective check out

Anonymous said...

If the female organizers were also more junior to the male organizers it could be a non-gender issue but a heirarchical issue. Is there a way to know if this is not the case? if such is not the case, I feel that the author of the post should talk to her male colleagues (the organizers who were acknowledged) about this, and maybe they can set the record straight. I think that would be better than the female organizer kicking up a fuss herself because this may appear as an internal rift within the team when it is not.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for (mostly) very helpful comments! I am the (female) researcher who recently experienced this situation. Although I am the youngest of the organizers, the other female professor is as senior as our male colleagues. I do not personally believe that acknowledgments should be age-based, however. For me, it is also very hard to understand why the conference participants should perceive that the efforts of the female organizers were less significant than the efforts of the male organizers.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous at 12:38. No need to address any gender issues, just say that you feel overlooked and so does other people, and that you put in a lot of work, and that this should never happen again. Bringing in gender won't, according to me, have a positive outcome.

Anonymous said...

There's just no way to get inside someone else's head - in this case the writer of the thank-you email - to know what exactly their intentions and assumptions , or lack thereof, were. He probably had well-meaning intentions but still that doesn't mean that what he did was fair either.

If you want to take up the matter, I would suggest going directly to the source which would be the writer of the thank-you email, and privately. If you're going to say something, then might as well cut to the chase and tell the thank-you writer that (a) even though he meant well, nevertheless you and your female colleague felt excluded or unappreciated at not being included as the recipients of the thanks but as spectators and (b) you hope that in future he will be more aware of other people's contributions.

Yes it may seem petty to say this in such a direct way, but if anything is to be said, then why not be direct and straight to the point. otherwise what's the point of saying anything?

If you feel uncomfortable with this or are concerned about how this would affect your reputation then I would opt to just let it go but try to do something different the next time, for example, perhaps being more visible or outspoken or schmoozing as much as the male colleagues and so on.

In short, I don't think progress will be made (in terms of getting the recognition you deserve) without you doing something proactive other than just doing the job itself well. either confront the thank-you writer directly, or else change your behavior the next time to be more visible. Is this unfair? yes it is, but life is unfair. It would be nice if we all got noticed and rewarded and recognized based solely on our merits and contributions, and some people are privileged that way, but we live in an unfair world.

Anonymous said...

Generally I try not to read too much in these things (I'm anon 12:57), and also I barely notice if the email is directed to me or if I'm cc'ed.
But here's what happened to em today: I request a quote for some high-end reagent (ie thousands of dollars). My email is signed with my first name, and the automatic signature says Obviously Female PhD, Associate Prof, Awesome University.
The guy (Tony Techinical Sales Associate) replies Hi First Name, here's a quote, if you are interested there are several forms that will need to be completed by you or your PI.


Anonymous said...


Hanna said...

Until I paid for something I do not count any "thanks"
Why it should be important for you? Probably prof. just send comments and acknowledge to males in whom they are interested (eg future collaboration), I think it normal. That two women were "out" is just a consequence of not being interested in them and nothing to do with sexism.
Yes, I feel this i an inpolite , as inpolite as they would be not womens but mens.